Intro to Afro-American Studies


The Rural Experience: 
The Emergence of the Afro-American

Toward a Paradigm of Unity in Afro-American Studies

LOGIC OF CHANGE Social Cohesion Traditional Africa - Slavery - Rural Life - Urban Life
Social Disruption - Slave Trade - Emancipation - Migrations -
UNITS OF ANALYSIS Ideology A1 B1 C1 D1 E1 F1 G1
Nationality A2 B2 C2 D2 E2 F2 G2
Class A3 B3 C3 D3 E3 F3 G3
Race A4 B4 C4 D4 E4 F4 G4


Peonage . . . was defined thus by a judge: "It is where a man in consideration of an advance or debt or contract, says, 'Here, take me, I will give you dominion over my person and liberty, and you can work me against my will hereafter, and force me by imprisonment, or threats of duress to work for you until that debt or obligation is paid.'" Experience has shown, too, that the judge might have added, "Until I, the planter, shall say that the debt has been paid."

Carter G. Woodson, The Rural Negro, 1930 


The end of the slave period was followed by a period in which the experiences of Black people were both similar to and different from what they had been. The Civil War and the Reconstruction were the years of emancipation. It was a period of transition in which great social, political, and economic upheaval destroyed some aspects of slavery but allowed other aspects to continue (not entirely in form, but in essence).

From the 1870s to the 1930s, the dominant experience of Black people in the United States was in the rural Black Belt area of the South. In 1890, a quarter of a century after the end of the Civil War, four out of every five Black people still lived in rural areas of the United States. Ten years later in 1900, nine out of every ten were in the South. And between 1890 and 1910, three out of every five Blacks worked in agriculture.

This is the period in which Black people were molded into a definite nationality, a people sharing social, cultural, economic, and political experiences, as well as suffering under a brutal system of social control and repression. Of course the common experience of slavery laid the foundation for this, but it was in the rural period that the full expression of this national development and national oppression took place. It is necessary to emphasize that this development was stunted because of repression and social control. 

Our focus here is, not on the chronological history of this period, but rather is to analyze the major aspects of the social content of this experience. 



The most basic aspect of a people's experience is the way they produce and consume whatever is necessary in order to survive, or in other words, their economic life. In the rural experience Black people were "apparently" free, but they continued to be oppressed by an economic system that compelled them to work in virtual bondage. The mechanism by which Black people were kept in servitude was the tenant system.

In theory, the tenant system was simply a contractual arrangement by which a landowner would exchange the use of land and perhaps tools, seed, and "furnishings" for either cash or a share of the profits and/or produce (crops). Charles S. Johnson, Edwin Embree, and Will Alexander describe this system more fully: 

Tenants may be divided into three main classes: (a) renters who hire land for a fixed rental to be paid either in cash or its equivalent in crop values; (b) share tenants, who furnish their own farm equipment and work animals and obtain use of land by agreeing to pay a fixed per cent of the cash crop which they raise; (c) share-croppers who have to have furnished to them not only the land but also farm tools and animals, fertilizer, and often even the food they consume, and who in return pay a larger per cent of the crop. 

Table 7 (below) outlines the typical arrangements for each type of tenancy.

At this level, such an economic arrangement appears to be a free exchange in which the economic partners have the freedom to enter on arrangement or to leave it. As has been pointed out, "Normally it is regarded as a step on the road to independent ownership." However, this was not the situation in the South where traditions and practices ensured exploitation. Emerging from a legacy of slavery, the economic partners were quite unequal. Rather than being partners, they can more correctly be defined as the oppressor and the oppressed.

In the first place, the overwhelming numbers of Blacks were sharecroppers and not renters or even share tenants. Moreover, Black farmers/workers were usually illiterate, had very limited experience in making contracts, and were very dependent upon the landowner for credit to survive from crop to crop. 
   Analyzing the tenancy system in the 1930s, Johnson, Embree, and Alexander wrote:

It is to the advantage of the owner to encourage the most dependent form of share cropping as a source of largest profits...landlords, thus, are most concerned with maintaining the system that furnishes them labor and that keeps this labor under their control....The means by which landowners do this are: first, the credit system; and second, the established social customs of the plantation order. 



Table 7

Share Cropping for Half and Half Share Renting for Third and Fourth Cash or Standing Renting
Work Stock
Feed for Stock
One half of Fertilizers
One fourth or one third of Fertilizers
One half of Fertilizers
Work Stock
Food for Stock
Three fourths or two thirds of Fertilizers
Work Stock
Food for Stock
One half of crop One fourth of crop or one third of crop fixed amount in cash or cotton
One half of crop Three fourths  or two thirds of crop entire crop less fixed amount



They go on to describe the way the system functioned to keep Blacks indebted: 

As a part of the age-old custom in the South, the landlord keeps the books and handles the sale of all the crops. The owner returns to the cropper only what is left over of his share of the profits after deductions for all items which the landlord has advanced to him during the year: seed, fertilizer, working equipment, and food supplies, plus interest on all this indebtedness, plus a theoretical "cost of supervision."  The landlord often supplies the food - "pantry supplies" or "furnish" - and other current necessities through his own store or commissary. Fancy prices at the commissary, exorbitant interest, and careless or manipulated accounts, make it easy for the owner to keep his tenants constantly in debt. 

The landowner was -able to manipulate the farmer so that the initial credit extended to the farmer nearly always resulted in the farmer's going further and further into debt. The landowners also manipulated the law to enact "measures which compelled the employee to remain in the service of his employer." Indebtedness thus became the basis of what turned out to be forced labor, or what is called peonage.


Carter Woodson described in his 1930 study how the tenancy system gave rise to peonage: 

Peonage developed as a most natural consequence of things in the agricultural South. The large planters constitute a borrowing class. It is customary for financial institutions to advance for a year sufficient money to cover the expenses of the landlord and his tenants, the amount being determined on the basis of one tenant for each twenty acres. The landlord, then, must hold his tenants by fair or foul means. If they desert him he is bankrupt. Authority, therefore, must be maintained with overseers using whips and guns to strike terror to the tenants who are kept down in the most debased condition. Negro women are prostituted to the white "owners" and drivers; and children are permitted to grow up in ignorance with no preparation for anything but licentiousness and crime. 

 Often landowners or their agents would go from town to town hiring farm laborers with the Understanding that they would pay them wages and advance them provisions from the "company store." Woodson recounted an investigator's report of what would then befall them:

"The laborers arrive and at the outset are indebted to the employer, who sees that they trade out their wages at the commissary, and in many instances, by a system of deductions and false entries, manages to keep the laborer perpetually in debt. If the laborer hap, a family, so much the better for the employer; they must live out of the commissary and if the laborer runs away his family are detained at the camp. To enforce the payment of such debts young children have been withheld from their parents. If the victim escapes the law is invoked. He is arrested under false pretenses, cheating, swindling, and false promises. There is usually no actual trial. The arresting officer in collusion with the planter induces the victim to return to work rather than go to jail," and "so he returns to bondage with a heavier load of debt to carry, for the cost of pursuit and arrest is charged to him. Often no process is issued for arrest, but the employer arrests without process, returns the prisoner to his labor camp and inflicts severe chastisement. Many of the labor contracts contain provisions to the effect that the laborer consents to allow himself to be locked in a stockade at night and at any other time when the employer sees fit to do thus." 

Peonage in its most extreme form could be seen in the chain gang. Woodson described the process:

The unusual prosperity of the country and, of course, of the South, necessitated a large labor force. To supply this need it became customary to fall back on convict labor. The first step in such peonage was the "benevolent" practice of the white men who would volunteer to pay the fines of Negroes convicted of minor crimes, and thus get them out of jail. The next step was to assure, by physical restraint, the working out of the debts thus incurred. Finally came the cooperation of justices, constables, and other officials in providing a supply of this forced labor by "law." 

Though peonage may not have been practiced by the majority, it did exist in areas of Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, and South Carolina where rich planters had the political and social wherewithal to enforce it.

Describing the conditions of the Black agricultural experience, Johnson, Embree, and Alexander wrote in the 1930s: 

For many years, even after Emancipation, black tenants were the rule in the cotton fields and the determination to "keep the Negro in his place" was, if anything, stronger after the Civil War than before.... the old "boss and black" attitude still pervades the whole system. Because of his economic condition, and because of his race, color, and previous condition of servitude, the rural Negro is helpless before the white master. Every kind of exploitation and abuse is permitted because of the old caste prejudice. 




The other side of the rural experience was that it did enable Black people to own some things, while in the slave period they were virtually propertyless. Moreover, while rural farmers didn't own much, they at least had the possibility of getting out of debt, purchasing a few pieces of farm equipment a little land, and a decent house, and even saving money. Thus, while the rural tenancy experience was in the main one of forced labor based on indebtedness (and in its most severe form, peonage), there was also a "middle-class" aspect to it that makes these people quite different from the wage worker in the industrial city. Farmers were poor, but they were usually in day-to-day managerial control of their farm lands, even if they were only sharecropping. This control was the crucial factor in making the farming experience "middle class" in that authority and control of work is a middle-class experience,

Black tenants had two choices, to go into debt or to increase their property holdings. To the extent that the tenant sank into debt, the life of a tenant took on the character of a modern worker using land and tools owned by someone else to make a living. On the other hand, to the extent that the tenant was successful and was able to buy land, equipment, and livestock, life became more secure and independent. This type of self-employment is one of the traditional bases for the middle class in a capitalist society. Of course all of this was controlled by the repression of the southern culture of white supremacy and by the terror of the lynch mob. The general pattern was for the tenant to go into debt, but aspire to success. Therefore, while their objective conditions were approximating an agricultural working class, their consciousness held out for a middle-class type of life.


As will be more fully described in a later chapter, the rural experience was the historical period in which the social and cultural organization of Black people was developed. This must be viewed in relationship to the economic character of the Black Belt, and to the forms and methods of social control and violent repression experienced by Black people. During the rural period the development of the Black church remained the major factor in the overall development of the Black community. The church was the central social- institution in which all forms of social life were organized and regulated. This included moral and social codes for family life, recreational behavior, orientations towards the problems faced by Black people, and the solutions to those problems. This is both to the credit and discredit of the church, because while objectively it is what held Black social life together, it was most often held together for survival rather than forms of active resistance for positive social change (though positive changes were made in some cases). Hence, the church was simultaneously the social basis for two kinds of leadership: militancy and "uncle tomism."



Under slavery the social control of Black people was total and was fully reinforced by all levels of law, from the federal government to the smallest county or town government in the South. The Civil War resulted in the emancipation of the slaves, and new federal legislation was passed giving Black people the right to vote. This newly acquired political enfranchisement was short-lived however. Robert Allen provides some of the reasons for this:

Black Reconstruction was made possible because Northern businessmen and politicians supported enfranchising the ex-slaves. This, however, was an alliance of convenience in which the businessmen and politicians used black people as pawns in their attempt to consolidate the economic and political control of the white North over the white South. Black men were given the vote, not so much out of sense of racial justice as to offset the political power of the white South. After all, the North had won the war and Northern leaders were anxious to ensure that their national political hegemony was firmly established. They believed this could be accomplished by allowing the freedmen to exercise the franchise within the framework of the Republican Party. After about ten years, when the North was well on the road to achieving economic penetration of the South, black people were abandoned by their so-called friends.

Once northerners secured their economic and political dominance of the South, they left white Southerners alone to deal with Blacks.

From at least 1890 onward, Black disfranchisement was a leading issue, and it helped reunite the white South, which had been divided over the agrarian reform movement that pitted poor whites against wealthy landowners and industrialists. "'Political niggerism," as Paul Lewinson said, "was an issue on which the vast majority of Southerners thought alike." There were two problems, however. One, the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution specifically stated that the right to vote could not be denied "on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.  Two, any scheme to disfranchise Blacks had to be carefully formulated so that whites would not also be excluded.



The devices for the political disfranchisement of Black people were soon developed. Lewinson describes the new tactics that were instituted throughout the South:

They perpetuated, in the first place, certain devices of the statutory election codes: A poll tax or other taxes must be paid by the applicant for registration. Registration was to take place months in advance of polling time, and a receipt for taxes paid must be shown to either registration or election officials, or to both. It was left to the officials, actually though not necessarily in law, to ask for these receipts, so that the Negro voter, unused to preserving documents, could often be disfranchised through sheer carelessness on his part. 

Among the new features introduced was the property qualification. This ran to two or three hundred dollars. One or more alternative qualifications might be offered by the would-be voter. Crude literacy - reading and writing - was one. Another was a sort of civic "understanding," tested by the ability to interpret the State or Federal constitution to the satisfaction of the election officer. "Good character" might also qualify, when supported by sworn testimonials, or by evidence of steady employment during a specified preceding period, or by an affidavit giving the names of employers for a period varying from three to five years. The property and literacy qualifications cut out large numbers of Negroes automatically; the alternatives could easily be manipulated by the officers in charge. 

In addition, residence requirements were greatly extended throughout the Southern States, and the list of crimes involving disfranchisement diversified until it included petty larceny, wife beating, and similar offenses peculiar to the Negro's low economic and social status. To, safeguard whites of low intelligence or small property, the so-called "grandfather clauses" were devised. For a period of years after the adoption of the respective constitutions, permanent registration without tax or other prerequisites was secured either to persons who had the vote prior to 1861 and their descendants; or to persons who had served in the Federal or Confederate Armies or in the State militias and to their descendants. This exemption from tests obviously ran only for whites. 

The poll tax, property qualifications, literacy and civic tests, good character and residency requirements, disqualifications for petty crimes, and the grandfather clauses effectively blocked the possibility of Blacks' engaging in electoral politics.

The social repression of Black people took on further ominous overtones with the violent genocidal practice of lynching. Table 8 provides data on the incidences of lynching. These data, of course, only give a glimmering of an idea of the extent to which Blacks were lynched since their lynchings often went unrecorded.



Moreover, most data on lynchings were based on a fairly limited definition of lynching:

Any assemblage of three or more persons which shall exercise or attempt to exercise by physical violence and without authority of law any power of correction or punishing over any citizen or citizens or other person or persons in the custody of any peace officer or suspected of, charged with, or convicted of the commission of any offense, with the purpose or consequence of preventing the apprehension or trial or punishment by law of such citizen or citizens, person or persons, shall constitute a 'mob' within the meaning of this Act. Any such violence by a mob which results in the death or maiming of the victim or victims thereof shall constitute 'lynching' within the meaning of this Act: Provided, however, That 'lynching' shall not be deemed to include violence occurring between members of groups of lawbreakers such as are commonly designated as gangsters or racketeers, nor violence occurring during the course of picketing or boycotting or any incident in connection with any 'labor dispute'... 

Many were lynched under circumstances not covered by this definition. The Commission on Interracial Cooperation in 1942 pointed to two cases highlighting the complications of defining lynching:

A man is out fishing. He discovers a body on the bank of a creek. It is clearly evident that the man was murdered. Maybe his body is riddled with bullets - his feet wired together, his hands tied behind him, his head bashed in. There have been no reports of any trouble in the county. Was he lynched or was he murdered? 

Another man has an altercation with his employer over a lost tool, or the amount of wages due him, or failure to carry out orders. His body is found one day. It is evident from its condition that the man was put to death. Did he meet his death at the hands of three or more persons? Was he suspected or accused of a crime? Were the officers of the law forewarned of his danger and did they act in collusion with the killers?


Table 8

Period Whites Blacks Total
1937-1946 2 42 44
1927-1936 14 136 150
1917-1926 44 419 463
1907-1916 62 608 670
1897-1906 146 884 1,030
1887-1896 548 1,035 1,583
1882-1886* 475 301 776
Totals ...... 1,291 3,425 4,716

* Indicates 5 year period. The other intervals are 10 year periods.
Source : Based n Jessie P. Guzman and W. Hardin Huges, Negro Year Book, p.307


As vague as the definitions may have been, it was clear to Black people that they lived under the constant threat of being killed.

Lynching was not only a specific method of murdering particular individuals, but also was the basis for developing a pervasive climate of terror and fear that became the cornerstone of the southern way of life. The logic was clear: Black people would be afraid of being lynched and therefore would observe the code of conduct informally prescribed by the dictates of white supremacy.


In all societies in all stages of history, where there is oppression there is resistance. Black people were not completely docile; they found many ways to resist and rebel. Throughout the Black Belt South individuals and families have resisted attacks, in some cases in courageous armed confrontation with lynch mobs. However, more significant than this is the pattern of collective resistance.

The Messenger recognized the importance of collective resistance in its 1919 proposal to resist lynching, which it saw as the "arch crime of America." It proposed two methods of resistance. The first was the use of physical force:

We are consequently urging Negroes and other oppressed groups confronted with lynching or mob violence to act upon the recognized and accepted law of self-defense. Always regard your own life as more important than the life of the person about to take yours, and if a choice has to be made between the sacrifice of your life and the loss of the lyncher's life, choose to preserve your own and to destroy that of the lynching mob....

The Messenger wants to explain the reason why Negroes can stop lynching in the South with shot and shell and fire...A mob of a thousand men knows it can beat down fifty Negroes, but when those fifty Negroes rain fire and shot and shell over the thousand, the whole group of cowards will be put to flight...

The appeal to the conscience of the South has been long and futile, its soul has been petrified and permeated with wickedness, injustice and lawlessness. The black man has no rights which will be respected unless the black man enforces that respect.... In so doing, we don't assume any role of anarchy, nor any shadow of lawlessness. We are acting strictly within the pale of the law and in a manner recognized as law abiding by every civilized nation. We are trying to enforce the laws which American Huns are trampling in the dust, connived in and winked at by nearly all of the American officials,, from the President of the United States down...

Whenever you hear talk of lynching, a few hundred of you must assemble rapidly and let the authorities know that you propose to have them abide by the law and not violate it... Ask the Governor or the authorities to supply you with additional arms and under no circumstances should you Southern Negroes surrender your arms for lynching mobs to come in and have sway.  To organize your work a little more effectively, get in touch with all of the Negroes who were in the draft. Form little voluntary companies which may quickly be assembled. Find Negro officers who will look after their direction...When this is done, nobody will have to sacrifice his life or that of anybody else because nobody is going to be found who will try to overcome that force. 


The second form of resistance that The Messenger proposed was economic force:

Now one of the best ways to strike  a man is to strike him in the pocketbook...Negroes are the chief producers of cotton. They also constitute a big factor in the South in the production of turpentine, tar, lumber, coal and iron, transportation facilities and all agricultural produce. They should be thoroughly organized into unions, whereupon they could make demands and withhold their labor from the transportation industry and also from personal and domestic service and the South will be paralyzed industrially and in commercial consternation...

Industrially, let the farmers organize farmers' protective unions.  Let the lumber workers, moulders, masons plasterers and other Negro workers on railroads and in mines organize into unions, quietly and unostentatiously.  Be prepared to walk out in concert, every man and woman who does any form of work. Let it be known that we are down to plain business, free from any foolishness or play. 

Let every Negro in the South begin to work on this program by agitating for it in the lodges, churches, schools, parlor and home conversation and while at work in factory or field. Write also to us about any detail in entering upon this work.  If this program is pressed, a year from now, we can call out of the fields, the factories and the mines between a million and two million Negroes, who will initiate the true work of making America a real "land of the free and home of the brave." 


While The Messenger's program of physical and economic resistance was a specific response to lynching, organized resistance to economic oppression had been going on for some time even though it was plagued with problems.

In the aftermath of Reconstruction and as a reaction to the Depression of 1873, which was particularly hard on the agrarian South, white farmers had organized the Southern Alliance of Farmers. Theoretically, the material basis for an alliance was there. Though Blacks faced greater economic hardship, both Blacks and poor white farmers suffered under the tenant system.



But as Robert Allen points out, the alliance between the two groups had been thwarted in the antebellum period:

Although there was much to recommend an alliance between black and white farmers, several historical factors had contributed to a deep rift between the two groups. In the first place, many of the poor white farmers were hostile towards blacks, tending to regard them as economic enemies. The explosive advance of the cotton plantation system in the decades prior to the Civil War had seriously undermined the independent small farmers. Unable to compete with the large planters in cotton production they were inexorably pushed out of the fertile regions or forced to emigrate to the frontier. Many of these ousted farmers became the "poor, white trash," "hillbillies," and "crackers" of the mountains and other inhospitable regions of the South. The class of poor rural whites was thereby swelled by the growth of the slave plantation system. However, in the hysterical racist atmosphere cultivated by the big planters, the poor whites were prone to identify their distress not with the slave system but with the slaves themselves.  The unquestioning acceptance of white supremacy demanded by the planters and their allies combined with the formers' custom of employing poor whites as harsh overseers between master and slave contributed immensely to racial antagonisms. The historic hostility between impoverished rural white and black populations thus has roots that reach back into the antebellum period. 

This "historic hostility" continued to obstruct any possibility for an alliance, even during the late 1800s when economic conditions worsened for both. Allen pinpoints the reasons for the failure of the two groups to ally:

[H]istorically, two contradictory dynamics were at work among the white farmers of the late nineteenth century, one pushing them toward economic and political alliance with similarly exploited-black farmers, and the second, based on white supremacy, moving them to economic and political hostility toward black farmers. 

Despite this hostility, the whites who had formed the Southern Alliance and had excluded Black members realized they needed the support of Black farm workers. They thus helped organize a separate Black organization, the Colored Farmers' National Alliance and Cooperative Union.

Some historians have contended that the Colored Alliance "was little more than an appendage" to the Southern Alliance, but there were differences in their approaches. In 1891, the Colored Alliance began working on a plan for Black cotton pickers to strike for higher wages. The president of the Southern  Alliance reacted by declaring that Blacks were trying "to better their conditions at the expense of their white brethren." The white Alliance was not about to support any radical action that would threaten the interests of white farmers, and it consistently undermined Black efforts to act independently. As Allen points out:


Underlying this dispute was a difference in class interest between the two groups. Many of the white farmers, especially the leaders of the agrarian revolt were farm owners and their ideology tended to be that of a landowning class. Between white and black farmers, who were overwhelmingly sharecroppers differing only in degree from landless farm workers, there was a smoldering class conflict not altogether unlike the contemporary conflict between farm owners and farm workers...

Black farmers thus were caught in a position of economic and racial conflict with white farmers and their political representatives. However... the black farmers lacked a truly independent organization through which they could develop and articulate their own program.  Instead they were reduced to subservient status in the agrarian reform movement.

Although the Colored Farmers' National Alliance and Cooperative Union built up a membership of over one million Black farmers, its fate was set by the betrayal of white farm leadership.

Later, a more revolutionary approach was undertaken by organizations like the Southern Farm Tenant Union and the Sharecroppers Union, most active in the 1930s and 1940s. The organizations built a membership of Black and white farmers, and were militant enough to even engage in armed struggle to protect its membership from the "southern justice" of sheriffs and lynch mobs. 



In the end, the overall dynamic character of industrial capitalism significantly reduced the demand for agricultural labor and increased the demand for industrial labor. The boll weevil that invaded the South during the 1920s and 1930s and led to the deflation of land values helped speed the process of agricultural decline. Particularly during World Wars I and II when the war industries were at their peak, Black people left the South and headed North. This exodus is one of the major social disruptions of Black social life, in many ways equal to the Civil War and Reconstruction.




Alliance of farmers (white vs. Black) Lynching  
Black Belt  Peonage/Indebtedness
Disfranchisement Resistance (physical force vs. economic force)
Emancipation experience (Civil War vs. Reconstruction) Sharecropping 
Farming/Agriculture Tenancy


1. What  are the different forms of tenancy? Describe the relationship between each type of tenant and the landowner.

2. Compare peonage to the middle-class aspects of tenant farming.

3. What political and violent methods were used to control and repress Black people during the rural period? Compare these methods with those that were used during slavery.

4. How did Black people organize resistance to fight against exploitation and repression during the rural period?



1. Leon F. Litwack, Been in the Storm so Long. The Aftermath of Slavery. New York: Random House, 1979.

2. Edward Magdol, A Right to the Land: Essays on the Freedmen's Community. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1977.

3. Jay R. Mandle, The Roots Of Black Poverty.- The Southern Plantation Economy after the Civil War. Durham: Duke Uni- versity Press, 1978.

4. Roger L. Ransom and Richard Sutch, One Kind of Freedom: The Economic Consequences of Emancipation. New York: Cam- bridge University Press, 1977'

5. Theodore Rosengarten, All God's Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1975.



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